Conscious Consumption

Conscious Consumption

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Picture courtesy of Nosha on Flickr

October 2015 was just like any other year until I travelled to Manali. This trip was different in many ways. It was the first time I was going on a vacation by myself. It was the first time that I was travelling without my smart phone. It was the first time I was travelling without a plan! And it was the best trip till date.

The weather, the mountain vistas, the food, the relaxed days definitely made the experience in Manali magical. Apart from these obvious factors, what stood out for me was the simplicity of the days and my experience. My trekking shoes, few sets of clothes, some books to read and colours to paint filled my backpack.

This experience highlighted the contrast of the lifestyle I lead in the cities vs. my days in the mountains. In the city, I look forward to get the best deals during a SALE where my mind has convinced me that I need that extra pair of shoes or the sports clothing. I definitely need an extra hard drive when there is an offer for electronics online.

It is only when I stepped out of the consumption craze in the city that I could spot the difference between my needs and wants.

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever, in a finite world; is either a madman or a politician. – Miklos S. Dora, Paraphrasing Kenneth Boulding, Surfers Journal

What is Unconscious Consumption? 

I believe the tendency to buy products online or offline, without an express need is unconscious consumption. This tendency could be fuelled by attractive packaging, discounts, window shopping, emotional setbacks or other such reasons. We may step out to buy 1 soap bar, but offers like buy 2 get 3rd for free make us buy 3 times the quantity we needed.

I quote from YvonChouinard’s book, Let My People Go Surfing, “I’ve always believed that the key to the government’s doing the right thing is to base its planning on the premise that the society will be around for a hundred years. When I think of stewardship or sustainability, I think back to when I was a GI in Korea, where I saw farmers pouring night soil on rice paddies that had been in continuous use for over 3000 years. Each generation of farmers assumed responsibility for leaving the land in better condition than when they took possession of it. Contrast this approach with that of modern agribusiness, in the Mid-west, which wastes a bushel of topsoil to grow one bushel of corn and pumps out groundwater at a rate of 25% faster than it’s being replenished.”

Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population. If current trends persist, by 2025 the demand for fresh water is expected to rise 56% above the amount that is currently available. – Maude Barlow, National Chairperson, Council of Canadians

Why should we work towards it?

‘Despite near-universal consensus among scientists that we are on the brink of an environmental collapse, our society lacks the will to take action. We’re collectively paralysed by apathy, inertia or lack of imagination.’ – YvonChouinard, Founder of Patagonia.

 As per the 80-20 principle, we use 20% of our things 80% of the times. There are clothes I haven’t worn in a year, a pair of stilettoes I dream to wear one day, stuff bought during an exhibition maybe, unused gifts from friends and family, books bought during a fair that I am still to read and so much more.

Collectively, all this excess has resulted in more trees being cut to make paper for the books, more land and soil being depleted to grow cotton for clothes, more plastic being produced for packaging, more fuel being consumed to ship these goods to the stores or my home. At an individual level, there is little I am doing to replenish these resources.

I know that there were more trees around my home when I was younger. I have seen Beas river flow with full force in summers when we visited the mountains in summer vacations. I now see parts of the river have dried up enroute. If we continue to consume at the current rate without replenishing nature, how will the world be for the future generations?

The landfills in the city are overflowing. We are experiencing extreme climatic conditions. For the first time in 15 years, there was very little snowfall in Manali in winter 2015. Summers in Bombay are only getting hotter by the year. Droughts in parts of Maharashtra are regular.

Making clothing using synthetic fibres or even organic natural fibres still uses a huge amount of petroleum and other forms of energy. We must get away from the notion of consuming non-renewable resources and making disposable garments. As it has become normal to recycle aluminium cans, paper, and steel, so should we start making all our clothing from recycled and recyclable fibres.

We learnt the role of trees in ensuring regular rainfall. With trees being cut for development, the level is oxygen produced is less. This has also resulted in a higher proportion of Carbon Dioxide since there are lesser trees to absorb it. Then we talk about the city with the highest pollution!

Says YvonChouinard, “If we fill the earth’s atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide and that causes a global rise in temperature, it also affects the oceans, forests, prairies, and everything and everyone living in those places. Correspondingly, if I were to change drastically one department at Patagonia without considering the effects on the rest of the company, the result would be chaos. No businessman in his right mind would, for example, intentionally cripple his accounting department without thought of the consequences to the rest of the company. Yet that’s exactly what’s being done to the environment; entire ecosystems are being destroyed or ‘converted’ without consideration to the overall health of the planet.

An Indian example of this conversion is the introduction of concreate in building village homes. The traditional architectural methods used wood and mud to build homes. This practice was in sync with maintaining the quality of the soil in the fields. With the introduction of cement to build homes; the synthetic concrete material is not compatible with natural soil; which is impacting the quality of the produce. For which they are resorting to using pesticides and chemicals, which only worsens the problem. The larger picture needs to be seen when taking a decision at a micro level.

In India, we experience extreme situations of resources. States like Assam, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal have abundant water supply; whereas Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh face water shortages. For those of us having excess of a particular resource, we have a greater responsibility use it consciously.

In the attempt to reduce costs to fuel consumption, companies are compromising on the quality of the product. Eg: A Coat may look like it is made from pure wool, in reality it is made from Polyester which is 1/3rd the cost of Merino wool and less than 1/3rd the warmth that pure wool provides. Instead of carrying 3 coats for our vacation to Paris, we can start by reducing our consumption by 1. This not only lightens our baggage, it reduced the load on the environment considerably.

In context of working on soil in his (YvonChouinard’s) 200 sq.ft garden, he says, “In fact my soil is probably still lacking the five billion bacteria, twenty million fungi and one million protists that reside in just a teaspoon of virgin topsoil. Nature has deemed that all these organisms are necessary for creating healthy new soil, fixing nitrogen and releasing from bedrock the trace minerals that are so vital to human health. A study by UK’s Medical Research Council in 1991 showed that vegetables had lost upto 75% of their nutrients since 1940, meats had lost half their minerals, and fruits had lost about two-thirds.

How can we consume consciously? 

I see a good example of a sustainable lifestyle in the villages in India. Families own a cow and fields for farming. They grow grass to feed the cow who in turn gives them milk and cow dung. The milk is sold to the neighbouring homes or guest houses. The dung is used as manure in the fields to yield a better crop. This dung is also used as a sealing agent between stones tiling the floor. The wet waste i.e. peels of fruits and vegetables are kept aside to feed the cow. The dry waste, wrappers of groceries are sold to be recycled.

Contrast this with the approach in cities where we mix our wet and dry waste. Packaging alone makes us consume huge amounts of plastic, which is non-biodegradable. We have forgotten the practice of repairing, refilling, re-using. It seems easier to use and throw and then buy some more. This approach is not sustainable for the long term.

In my own garden, I’ve never had to use any type of toxic chemical or artificial fertilizer because the plants are healthy and have a natural resistance to disease and insects. I rotate my crops, and I also mix up my plants to have diversity, so there is not the monocrop attraction to insects and disease. I also allow a hundred swallows to build nests under the eaves of my roof, so no flying insect has a chance of surviving my natural “air force.”

A few of the practices that have helped me consume consciously are shared below:

  1. Get away from it all for a while: Being an outdoor and fitness enthusiast, I like to be amidst the mountains, run trails, walk along the river bank, hear the gurgling sound of a brook nearby. I therefore make it a point to take short breaks, even a day trek in the Sahyadris to remind me how disillusioned the city life makes us. We don’t actually need as much as we want!
  2. Try to remember what we already have: Being a girl, clothes and accessories were my indulgences. Being part of the retail industry, it is often I find myself in stores as part of being in touch with the latest in the industry. With creativity in design at its very best these days, it is not easy to stop myself from billing a product or checking out from the cart. Off late, before I decide to buy the product, I recollect how many of that product I already have and question my mind if I ‘need’ another one. More often than not, the answer is no. That is the deciding factor.This helps at a larger level. All that is saved in not buying unnecessary wants, is my reserve to explore and see more of our beautiful planet.
    I believe, as do most of our employees, that the health of our home planet is the bottom line, and it’s a responsibility we must all share.
  1. Repair, reuse, recycle: I have to give credit to my Mum for this one. I have seen her make regular visits to the stationery shop to refill ball point or gel pens. At the price point of less than Rs.10 a pen, it is easy to throw and buy a new pen. The collective impact of refilling our pens, therefore consuming less of new plastic and saving the energy that goes into production is huge. After all, it is drops that make the ocean.
  2. Recently I met Simon, a paramedic in California, travelling across India. He was stitching a rip in his friend’s backpack with dental floss! According to him, it was stronger and stayed longer. Travel surely teaches me fantastic lessons.
  3. Segregate and compost: The credit for this one goes to my sister. Diipti ensured that separation of dry and wet waste was explained and executed at home. We have a terracotta khamba or compost bin which recycles the wet waste to give us black rich fertile manure. This is used in our plant pots. The dry waste is sold to the old paper mart or collection agencies like Karma recycling, PomPom and Encashea. Initiatives like Pixie Dust Farms in Bombay take workshops teaching you how to compost wet waste. They have a farm set up in Bandra, where you can see how vacant land has been transformed into a magical space.

We are the last generation that can experience true wilderness. We need to protect these areas of unaltered wildness and diversity to have a baseline, so we never forget what the real world is like – in perfect balance, the way nature intended the earth to be. This is the model we need to keep in mind on our way toward sustainability.

We are constantly trying ways to become 0 plastic and 0 waste. Eg: We buy cheese cubes instead of cheese slices to avoid plastic packaging.

YvonChouinard summarizes the environmental philosophy chalked out for his business and self as below:

  1. Lead an examined life
  2. Clean up our own act
  3. Do our penance
  4. Support civil democracy
  5. Influence other companies

The quotes in boxes have been taken from the book Let my people go surfing by YvonChouinard. You can read in detail about the Environmental Policy and the holistic approach adopted in every department of the company in the same book.

Conscious Consumption

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